Enslaved: Odyssey to the West Reader Review
Making my way through Enslaved at the moment, it's easy to see why the game has received such an ambivalent response from the gaming press. Critics have lauded it's immersive storytelling, whilst at the same time bemoaning its bugginess and basic combat mechanics. Having romped my way - reasonably enjoyably - through to chapter 8 of 12, I feel I've had enough of a taste of the game to weigh up its relative merits.
The first, inescapable, observation I made was just how rough around the edges this game is. In a generation boasting the technical splendours of Uncharted 2, Gears of Wars 2 and MGS 4 to name but a few, to see such a clunky, workmanlike game world sitting unabashedly on game-store shelves shoulder-to-shoulder with the aforementioned lookers, it does make one wonder how the Naughty Dogs of this world can harness the tools at their disposal so much more effectively than Ninja Theory has done with Enslaved. There have been occasions when the graphics have been laughably basic and called to mind first-generation Xbox; during a particularly ropey scene where Trip and Monkey are sitting around a campfire in the wilderness, having just escaped post-apocalyptic NYC, I half expected little blue and green pixies, sacks slung over shoulders, to spring clandestinely out of the cover of darkness and pilfer our heroes' belongings.
Graphics aside, I've had a mixed experience with how the game handles. There's some fantastic gameplay ideas spliced together in this adventure game, from Uncharted-esque climbing and scrambling to a neat instruction-based cover mechanic where Monkey and Trip cooperate to navigate multi-level areas, often whilst pinned down by aggressive turret fire. The combat itself is a slightly simplistic affair, yet perseverance reveals it to be an ultimately satisfying fusion of Ninja Gaiden-esque close combat (that probably flatters Enslaved somewhat), and a selection of clunky ranged attacks that mix things up and introduce an added layer of tactical depth to some of the trickier mech enemies. My problem with the gameplay is the implementation of these ideas. The control of Monkey, whilst translating well to the screen with the expert motion capture of Andy Serkis (he of LOTR fame), just doesn't feel tight enough, and also lacks that certain fluidity that makes navigating treacherous environments with Nathan Drake such an invariable pleasure; the way Drake tumbles and rolls, leaps and clambers is indubitably one of the joys of this gaming generation. With Enslaved I've found myself just hammering the X button indiscriminately as the muscle-bound Monkey flings himself impossibly through Enslaved's gaudily desolate levels. I feel that a bit more of a nuanced, rhythmic approach to the platforming, something along the lines of the way the rebooted Prince of Persia serenely handles, would have suited better, and provided more satisfaction to the gamer.
The camera is just about well-enough behaved, but its freneticism and the way in which it appears to be zoomed in to Monkey closer than I'd have liked, coupled with the gaudy colour pallete, does create a certain feeling of motion sickness that I haven't experienced as a gamer since 90's sci-fi flight game, Forsaken on PC.
To finally progress to Enslaved's greatest redeeming feature, let me discuss the two main protagonists' relationship. The characters, in comparison to the untidy game world, are beautifully realised, both in visual terms and the wonderful voice acting by Serkis and the mellifluous Lindsey Shaw. The hair animation of Trip is decidedly old-school in comparison to, say, Final Fantasy XIII (which appears to devote entire game engines to creating accurate follicular representation), but the facial expressions of both are captivating and contribute considerably to immersion into the game's better-than-average, Alex Garland-scripted narrative. Even Monkey, despite his impossibly proportioned, vaguely hominoid physique is a very sympathetic character, the warm growl that Serkis endows the character with going a long way to achieving this.
The interplay and blossoming affection and dependence that develops between Monkey and Trip is an involving thing and Enslaved's greatest triumph. Let's make no bones about this, Trip is a very attractive, albeit pixellated, creation; her involving facial expressions and heart-melting voice (she had me at "I'm soooorry," when she apologises for placing the diadem on Monkey's head) both conspire to engender that paternal proclivity present in every male. The lineage of winning, susceptible female game characters can be traced back to Alyx Vance, of Half-Life II fame, who is perhaps this character-type's genesis. There are certainly very strong parallels between the two characters and that impulse to protect is, for me, the game's defining feature. There's a you-and-me, do-or-die melancholia to proceedings that harks back to the primal, filial bond between Ico and Yorda in that most beautiful of video games, and there is no greater compliment than that in my mind.